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SEOUL (Reuters) - As South Korea's economic numbers take a turn for the worse, public health experts are worried about a wave of financially strapped people taking their lives in the country with the highest suicide rate in the developed world.
South Korea's suicide rate nearly doubled during the Asian financial crisis a decade ago from previous years with experts saying a leading factor was strain caused by job and income loss.
"Many people see this financial crisis as being a matter of survival and it could certainly lead to an increase in the suicide rate," said Kim Jeong-il, a leading mental health expert.
South Korea's export-driven economy has been hit hard by the current global economic slowdown, causing local shares to plunge, bankruptcies to increase and unemployment roles to swell.
With suicide the fourth-leading cause of death in South Korea and the leading cause of death among those in their 20s and 30s, including leading actress Choi Jin-sil last month, local media has dubbed the country the "Republic of Suicides."
The rate has gone up steadily over the past few years despite a government plan rolled out in 2004 that called for measures such as increasing counseling centers and teacher training.
The Seoul subway system has also stepped in by installing automated doors on platforms that open when a train has stopped at the station to prevent people from jumping on the tracks.
Experts said they see a link between a higher suicide rate and an increase in the country affluence because the new wealth has raised expectations in an already pressure-packed society to perform well financially and academically.
Traditional safety-net measures, such as having extended families living under one roof, have weakened as the economy has grown stronger, said Lee Gwang-ja, a nursing professor at Ewha Womans University, and a vice president of the Korea Association for Suicide Prevention.
Another reason behind South Korea's high suicide rate is a poor system of mental health, which suffers from a lack of professionals, little insurance money to pay for treatment and a strong social stigma of seeking psychiatric help, experts said.
In 1983, as the country was just starting to emerge from the wreckage of the Korean War and was taking its first steps toward economic power, the rate was 8.7 suicides per 100,000 people.
By 2007, when the country was the world's 13th largest economy, the rate was 24.8 per 100,000, higher than Japan and more than double that of the United States.
Editing by Nick Macfie